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Who Are the Ultimate Trusted Advisors?

What profession do you think has the most ultimate trusted advisors per capita? Consultants? Doctors? Financial planners? I now know where my vote goes. PICU nurses.

A Child in Intensive Care

I spent the first ten days of 2011 coming from and going to the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU). Our six-year old niece “Abigail” (not her real name) was critically ill (she is better now.) It was a once-in-a-lifetime scary 10 days for our family.

During this time I observed–and experienced–the PICU nurses as they did their jobs. Obviously, education, training and technical expertise is required to work in PICU. But what blew me away was the dedication, passion, commitment and ultimate customer service that everyone showed—to a person.

Their every action was executed with love and care. Each time they touched Abigail or did anything to adjust her equipment or medications, they told her what they were doing (though she was totally sedated): “Abigail, I’m going to suction you now, honey.” They showed the utmost respect for her as a patient and as a human being. It made me re-think what it means to be of service.

I emerged from this rough week with a fresh appreciation for what it means to be dedicated to clients and love what you do. I found myself wondering whether anything I had ever done could come even remotely close to what these PICU nurses do every day. I’m not trying to compare apples to oranges (e.g. I am an organizational performance consultant, not a nurse), but I think there are some apples-to-apples lessons to be learned here.

Applying PICU Lessons to Consultants

I live in Washington, DC, a town brimming with consultants. Just one search command reveals plenty of consulting firms claiming to be trusted advisors. But if you parse them using The Trust Equation–I wonder how many would match the kind of ratings these nurses get?

PICU nurses may be the ultimate trusted advisors. They are experienced, technically skilled and have a high degree of credibility. They have to be reliable; if they don’t show up on time to replenish a medicine the patient could die. In many ways they have to subvert their egos and have a low self-orientation to be of service to the patient.

In fact, could they do their jobs if they didn’t care? I concluded maybe they could execute the task-oriented aspects of their jobs without caring. But the love and care they put into their work, which drives the intimacy component in the Trust Equation, may be a critical part of the medicine and treatment for the most ill.

The Power of Care

Some studies show that the hormone Oxytocin (dubbed the “trust or bonding hormone”) is released with human touch and stimulates feelings of serenity, happiness and love, dampening fear and stress and nurturing trust and security. While our niece lay in a medically-induced coma for days, one of the nurses on the midnight shift took the time to carefully comb through Abigail’s long, tangled hair –and then put it into two braids.

When her mother awoke in the morning she was moved to tears to see that while she slept in the room in a rather uncomfortable chair, someone had shown her daughter the love and care that often only one’s mother can offer. How might this display of intimacy have contributed to Abigail’s healing process?

Lessons for Advisors

Abigail was hooked up to advanced machines and pumped full of life-saving medicine. She received world-class health care. But she also was cared for by perhaps the ultimate trusted advisors. We’ll never know the full power of the PICU antidote that brought Abigail back to full health but we might take a few lessons from them:

  • Know what your client needs and then deliver it
  • Communicate straightforwardly (never lie or sugar coat anything)
  • If necessary, under-promise and over-deliver
  • Allow yourself to bring humanity to what you do, knowing that this may be what makes the biggest difference
  • When you say you are going to do something, deliver on your word
  • Never, ever let your ego get in the way of doing your job.

To Tell or Not To Tell: The Three-Question Transparency Test

We’ve all had those moments when we realized we knew something that someone else didn’t know and it was awkward. Think of the last time you were at lunch and you noticed your tablemate’s big, toothy grin adorned by a piece of big, leafy spinach—yep, that’s the kind of awkward we’re talking about. Even though most of us probably ascribe to a principle of Transparency—being honest, open, candid except when illegal or injurious to others—we’ve all made the choice at some point to say nothing.

The question is: did we do the right thing?

Use the Three Question Transparency Test to find out.

When a Lie by Omission Seems Like a Pretty Good Option

On the surface, it’s easy to say “Honesty’s the best policy!” Dig a little deeper and it’s not so clear.

Let’s look at some client examples to make this real—cases where you know something that he or she doesn’t (or might not), and you wonder “to tell or not to tell?”

– Imagine you’ve discovered a mistake in your work. The impact is relatively minor. Does it help or hurt the customer relationship to call attention to it?

– Or…you’ve discovered a mistake in your client’s work. The impact is significant. So is the likelihood of embarrassment (or worse) for them. Are you honoring or dishonoring the relationship by saying nothing?

– What if you learn something unfavorable about a competitor—one your customer is currently engaged with. Are you the hero or the jerk if you bring it up?

– And—maybe the worst of all—what do you do when you notice your client has spinach in her teeth?

End the Debate with the Three-Question Transparency Test

The next time you’re debating “to tell or not to tell,” ask yourself three questions:

1. Is my reason for not telling actually for my benefit, rather than theirs? Let’s face it: we human beings have a natural tendency to avoid scary, uncomfortable stuff—and that includes not telling things when telling is precisely what will honor the relationship. Is it really in the other person’s best interest to say nothing or is your desire to avoid your own discomfort creating a platform for a nice, juicy rationalization?

2. If I don’t tell and he finds out later, will he feel misled? This question invites you to see the situation from the other person’s vantage point—always a good practice when it comes to relationship-building. (By the way, if you’re banking on the fact that he won’t find out later, check your probabilities…and your motives.)

3. Would I tell her if she were my friend? This is my favorite question because it really cuts to the chase and invites us to set aside the arms-length decorum (often masked as “professionalism”) that defines most business relationships.

If at any point your answer is yes, do not pass Go, do not collect $200. Say what needs to be said (with compassion and diplomacy, of course – caveats help immensely.)

An Even Simpler Test

If three questions seem like too many, here’s the ultimate litmus test. Thanks go to Chip Grizzard, CEO of Grizzard Communications Group, who recently shared these words of wisdom. Chip says, “If you’re expending any energy on the debate, then it probably means you should say something.”

It doesn’t get much simpler than that.

In Theory and In Practice

While the principle of Transparency sounds good in theory, it’s actually very hard to live by. It takes courage. It takes a willingness to get comfortable being uncomfortable. It takes a commitment to removing yourself from the equation. And it takes a certain level of discernment to figure out when it’s hurting versus helping to sidestep the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

Use the Three-Question Transparency Test—or the simpler “Grizzard Gut Check”—the next time you wonder whether to tell or not to tell.

The Surprising Reason You Lost That Last Sale

How many times do we hear from someone out of the blue and wonder what it is they are after?

Recently I met a CEO from an ASX top 200 (our Aussie version of DJI or FTSE 100) company at a social event. I had gotten to know him through my work with a Big 4 firm. Our conversation turned to the Partner who had completed much work for his company.

I asked, “Have you seen X recently?” He replied in words to the effect of, “I haven’t heard from him for a couple of years. He must be too important to contact me nowadays.”

The Partner in question had since taken on very senior roles within the firm, and even though the comment was meant in jest, I think there was a tone of underlying disappointment. I’m sure they had spent many hours together, probably talking not just about work, but about personal issues as well. Intimacy would have developed over time.

Now in the rear view mirror of time, this CEO may have come to believe that the care shown at the time by the Partner was not authentic, that it was used only as self-interest to gain revenue.

This I know would not have been the case; but certainly may now have become the perception.

This reinforces to me the importance of the simple ‘checking in’ call. It reminds me of Mizner’s, “Always be nice to people on the way up; because you’ll meet the same people on the way down

The same man said, “A good listener is not only popular everywhere, but after a while he gets to know something.”

As you may know, the power of listening is a core theme in The Trusted Advisor and Trust based Selling.

At this time of year I remember a story, which at the time surprised me, but which I now completely understand.

A number of years ago I asked a friend what criteria he had used to decide on a service provider for a facility management contract. He said it was a difficult decision; the 3 tender documents he received were similar, the people he met from each firm were all credible and seemed to be people he could work with. The clincher for him was that only one of the tenderers sent him a best wishes card for the holiday. That’s the firm he chose.

As Trust-based Selling suggests, it’s the ‘hard’ credentials that buyers consider necessary conditions and which they use to screen. But it’s the ‘soft’ credentials that are the tie-breakers, the sufficient conditions, that buyers use to make the final selection.

I also find inspiration regarding the importance of personal connection from an odd couple: an 18th century postmaster, and an early Greek philosopher:

“I love a hand that meets my own grasp that causes some sensation” (Samuel Osgood).

“A hidden connection is stronger than an obvious one” (Heraclitus of Ephesus)

What Costs More Than a $1,000 Per Hour Lawyer?

Beginning just three years ago, some large firm legal fees reached that amount – about $17/minute – providing fodder for legal bloggers, and Internet articles on a variety of topics, including new marketing opportunities and excessive fees for bankruptcy matters to name just a couple. Only senior lawyers in the largest firms actually charge that much, and that’s to large companies on non-commoditized work. What about the rest of us? What makes a service worth that much to us? On my daily walks with Sam, we have a lot of epiphanies. Here’s one we came up with just before a Nor’Easter looming on the horizon. And no, this isn’t a rant about lawyers and their fees.

This is about snowplowing. I can only talk about the Boston area. Here, snowplowing costs anywhere between $35-50 per 3 inches of snow per driveway (the rest of you can fill in your own numbers). The average time per driveway – 3-5 minutes.

Here’s what’s interesting to me. Why is a homeowner willing to pay about $10/minute to anyone with a snowplow, yet would complain about that rate for most other services. I applied the Trust Equation to this question.?

  • Credibility: We’d prefer they not wreck the lawn or dig up the driveway, but if they do, well, things happen. We do want them to actually clean up the snow though.
  • Reliability: Jackpot. We’re paying for them to show up. Fast, and often if needed. If they show up relatively on time, they’re worth it. If they don’t, they’re not. Simple as that.
  • Intimacy: No need to empathize with us or share. Just do what is a straightforward job.
  • Self-orientation: If they want to tell us how great they are, it’s fine–just do the job.

This is a transaction, so Intimacy and low Self-orientation just don’t matter. However, Reliability is so important that we’re willing to pay more per minute than just about any other service we get. Credibility is important only in that the job be done reasonably well.

This made us think–where else is Reliability and Credibility so important that we’re willing to pay extraordinarily high rates so we can get it? Here’s our very short list:

a. Ambulance services. This is way out of line on a per minute basis. We’re paying for the competency to be available when we need it. Imagine if the costs were less, and they were only available at certain times. We have to pay more so they’re ready when we need them.

b. Travel–last minute. When you have to get home fast, you’ll pay multiples of the regular cost. I was in Dallas, and was required to stay 4 hours later than my flight. My round trip was about $350. My return flight 8 hours later on the same day was $1800. I wasn’t happy but I was willing to pay it. While air travel is not incredibly reliable, it’s more reliable than alternatives to travel long distances. I knew I’d get home.

Conclusion? Time sensitive needs merit higher rates, particularly where there are limited resources (like snowplows during a storm, planes to a specific destination, ambulance services), knowing you can use the service and it’s reliable is worth whatever it costs up to a point. What that point is depends on our need at the time.

The Revolution Will Not Be Twitterized

Arguably the inventor of rap music—and undeniably a unique voice of our time—Gil Scott-Heron is today most famous for an April 1971 track called “The Revolution Will Not be Televised.” 

“…the revolution will not be brought to you by Xerox in four parts without commercial interruption…will not give you sex appeal, nor make you look five pounds lighter…will not go better with Coke…”. 

The message—as I hear it—making change is not a casual, part-time activity. Done seriously, it can be hazardous to your being.

Here’s a short video of Scott-Heron:

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised
Uploaded by mallox. – Music videos, artist interviews, concerts and more.

Decades later, Malcolm Gladwell nods to Scott-Heron to say something similar about the television of our age—New Social Media (New Yorker, October 4, 2010: "Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not be Tweeted.")

In his inimitable style, Gladwell first digs deep into the early days of the Civil Rights movement in the US—February 1960, to be precise—to show how a 4-person sitdown strike morphed into sitdown strikes across the south involving 70,000 students. All done, as he notes, without Twitter.

Then—as usual—Gladwell brings in the counterpoint. In this case, new social media. With an undertone of annoyance, Gladwell quotes State Department officials, old media reporters, and new media darling Clay Shirky. They all gush about the power of Twitter and Facebook to affect global political events, and to mobilize masses of people behind crucial movements.

Bahh, says Gladwell. Don’t confuse getting people to contribute thirty-five cents from the comfort of their armchair with a willingness to go get your head broken in support of a cause. And, suggests Gladwell, it is the latter—not the former—that turns out to be at the heart of social change.

Change requires risk. Serious change is done in numbers; but in small numbers, with real ‘friends’ beside you. The ‘friends’ you have on Facebook don’t deliver that kind of support.

Personal and Impersonal Trust

The debate Gladwell is raising is nominally about social media. It does raise a related trust issue, however. To what extent does our extended connectivity and interdependence increase trust?

Let me go back to the Trust Equation to suggest an answer. The Trust Equation (actually an equation for trustworthiness) is

(C + R + I)

          S

Where:

C = credibility

R = reliability

I = intimacy

S = self-orientation

 When people talk about new technologies allowing for the creation of greater trust, they are often talking about the first two elements of credibility and reliability—especially the latter.

·    We ‘trust’ that the sun will rise in the east;

·    We ‘trust’ Amazon’s suggestions for us because they are hugely data-based;

·    We ‘trust’ eBay’s ratings of sellers because they are aggregated and mediated;

At the same time, that kind of trust doesn’t mean I’d introduce my daughter to anyone at Amazon or eBay, or even lend anyone there ten dollars. Because that’s not the kind of trust you get from knowing people. 

A site like Match.com is a more interesting case, because it uses large impersonal aggregation to go after the kinds of interpersonal trust that are missing in a low-dollar commercial purchase. Scale alone is a huge attraction; but the impersonality of the medium, applied to a relationship game, means the dating sites have had to evolve various ways of mimicking the very personal process we have of getting to ‘really’ know other people. Winking, poking, are a few; they mimic the range of halting gestures people make toward each other in early stages; profiles and the ‘just lunch’ concept are others.

Gladwell’s specific point about revolutionary politics is an instance of a more general point about trust: Trust Is Personal. I’m talking about the Intimacy and the Self-Orientation kinds of trust mainly. I mean the kind of trust we need if we’re to do serious interactions, one on one, or movement-on-establishment.

If I don’t ‘trust’ my Toyota, I may go find a Ford. If I don’t ‘trust’ my ‘friend’ on Facebook, I may complain about him to my other ‘friends.’

But if I’m a civil rights activist in the 1960s, or an Iranian dissident today—I’m not going to risk my behind if the only one who’s got my back is a Twitter friend. 

Said Scott-Heron, “You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out…the revolution will not be on instant replay…there will be no highlights on the 11:00 news…the revolution will not be…” twitterized.

The Real Stuff is still pretty Personal.

A Cautionary Tale for Marketers: Do’s and Don’t’s from the Perspective of the Marketed-To

Story 1: Don’t Do This

I got one of those broadcast email solicitations from a very reputable organization that hosts executive roundtables. Brian (a stranger to me) wanted me to attend an informational meeting. To his credit, he “had me at hello” with the very first lines of his email, which were both personal and complimentary: “Andrea, let me first say I LOVE the name of your company and the genesis of it…the ‘new beat’ story. Outstanding!”

“Wow,” I thought, “He’s taken the time to find out about BossaNova and make a personal connection to me. He gets me! He likes me! I like this guy!”

What followed was a directive to “Read on” with a photo of a jubilant baseball team and the assertion that “There are lessons you learn in Baseball that can apply to business leaders like YOU once you understand their importance and their impact” (with a bulleted list of those very lessons). His call to action at the end of the email was aggressive and impersonal.

Brian had me right off the bat and lost me soon after. I have nothing against baseball—not at all. I’m just not much of a sports enthusiast and, truthfully, get tired of the male-oriented metaphors. Brian’s very personal appeal followed by his very impersonal (and misaligned) form letter was a particularly lethal combo. Now, not only am I a “no” for the information session I was invited to, but I have an attitude about both Brian and his organization to boot. Three strikes, you’re out.

Story 2: An Approach to Emulate

A few weeks ago I was surprised by a knock at the door—an unexpected delivery of baked goods from a local sweet shop. The package included a hand-written note from Kacy, the office organizer I had hired exactly one year before. The sweets were to commemorate my first anniversary in my new home office, with a reminder that she was available should any lingering piles be in my way, and a request to tell others about her services if I was so inclined.

I immediately logged onto Facebook (well, by “immediately” I mean right after I had a cookie) and posted kudos for Kacy, along with a link to her web site. I sent her an email to thank her for the unexpected treat, alert her to the free Facebook advertising, and acknowledge her for the lesson in great marketing. She wrote me right back to thank me, saying, “I’m so glad you like them! I never know if someone’s going to be out of town or unavailable, but it always works out. In my client list, I have a column where I note the dates of our last sessions. Once a month or so I run through those and send the goodies out!”

The sweets hit the sweet spot, for sure, far more so than being hit over the head with a baseball bat. Maybe Kacy got lucky with her choice. Although it seems to me she could have sent me anything (even one of those giant foam fingers) and the good feelings from the unexpected personal acknowledgement would have prevailed.

A Plea to Marketers

The two anecdotes aren’t apples to apples—different relationship histories, different communication media, different calls to action. That said, I find them both illuminating.

To all marketers out there (including myself), here’s my plea:

  •         DO make it personal
  •         DON’T use a personal tactic to get someone’s attention and then switch to a more generic approach
  •         DO find creative ways to appreciate the people who have given you business in the past
  •         DO use the element of surprise
  •         DON’T be afraid to ask for more work or for referrals.

The moral of the stories: Intimacy is a powerful tool in business. Use it wisely, especially with strangers. Mix it in with a little unexpected generosity and you’ll hit a home run.

Trust on the Toll Road

A good friend of mine, Bob, recently lost his mother.  Following the funeral, disheveled and still in mourning he took to the road to return to Boston.  Approaching the tolls at the New York Thruway, he tried to slow down and discovered he had no brakes. 

In the split second Bob had to choose what to do, he examined his options.  Hit the cement barrier and risk getting hit from behind or go through the toll and hope the car in front of him was moving away thereby minimizing the risk of injuring someone.  He decided to put the car in park–which only slowed the car a little–and go through the toll. 

Unfortunately the car in front didn’t move away.  Luckily no one was hurt. 

When the police officer showed up, he too had a choice.  He had to determine whether it was, in fact, an accident and that Bob was telling the truth about his brakes failing, or if he was simply telling a tale to get out of a ticket by swaying responsibility. 

The officer chose a third option–he assumed Bob was trying to avoid the $1.25 toll.  What made this officer ignore the more likely choices and go for dishonesty of the third kind?  Was it Bob’s disheveled look?  Did he sound drunk? 

I can understand if the officer thought Bob was lying to avoid a ticket. He’s probably seen many people run through tolls.  What baffles me is why he would think Bob would run a toll when there was a car at the toll booth.   What made him select the most improbable scenario?

The implications for trust are profound.   We can influence our own trustworthiness by reducing our self-orientation, and increasing our credibility, reliability and intimacy. 

Yet those factors don’t operate in a rational vacuum when we consider whether to trust others.   Our upbringing, general experience, specific experiences, psychological makeup and even job responsibilities go into the mix. 

Put yourself in the shoes of the police officer.  Perhaps something similar happened in the past.  Maybe he’s heard so many excuses, that everything sounds like a variation on the theme.  Maybe he was just having a difficult day. 

Maybe he trusted someone’s story that turned out to be a lie once too often.  We want to be trusted, and we would like ourselves and others to be trusting.  We have to recognize when our own issues get in the way of trusting others.  And hope that our own hard work to be trustworthy will be enough for others to trust us. 

What happened to Bob?  The tow truck driver confirmed that the brakes failed.  

And the officer made my friend pay the toll, just in case.

The Wrong Elevator Speech: Disaster and Recovery

This is week three for me of a four-week road trip. I’m getting a little loopy, but am collecting some wonderful client experiences, lessons and stories. Here’s one from a British account executive.

“I was going to see a potential client for what could have been an important piece of business for us. Unfortunately for me, I missed the scheduled plane by minutes, and thus was delayed by an hour. I called, and they agreed to reschedule the meeting to accommodate me.

“When I arrived, a bit flustered, the team of a half-dozen clients execs had gathered downstairs, and we all then went to the lift to go upstairs to the designated conference room.

“Unfortunately the lift was made for about four people. We all crammed into the lift, and it slowly began to climb. At that point someone—how shall I put this—well, as we English say—passed gas. The lift continued its crawling pace upward. No one, of course, said a word, nor even altered their expression. There was dead silence.

“As the doors finally opened, we all rushed to get out—all at once. And all 7 of us thereby tumbled onto each other on the floor. We all picked ourselves up, even more embarrassed, and again without saying a word to each other, made our way into the conference room.

“As I set up at the head of the room, I could feel the weight of this triple discomfort: I was late, the tumbling all over each other—and of course the ‘gas’ incident in the middle. It was all contrived to create a mutual sense of misery.

“What to do? I stood in the front of the room and said, ‘Gentlemen, little did I know this morning what a fine level of intimate relationship we should all achieve in so little time here this afternoon. I am honored indeed.”

“Well fortunately, everyone fell all over each other laughing; I had somehow managed to prick the balloon of the unspoken that hung over us like a cloud, and the rest of the day went marvelously. And oh yes, we got the sale.”

What this gentleman had done, in our nomenclature, was to Name It and Claim It; that is, to speak aloud the one thing that no one could figure out how to talk about. He did it with humor—an excellent tool—and was rewarded for the relief he caused by an appreciative relationship, and even a sale.

How many of us waste moments like that, buried in our own fear of speaking the truth? And how many sales do we leave on the table because of it?

 

Three Little Words

My mother always told me that bad luck comes in threes. At the risk of pushing my luck, I’m going to disagree with her–at least when it comes to trustworthiness. Here are three phrases, each three words long, that are an essential part of any Trusted Advisor toolkit: "That makes sense," "Tell me more," and "I don’t know."

"That Makes Sense"

Charlie speaks this phrase all the time and it’s remarkably effective. I say "speaks," rather than "uses," because it’s not a tactic; it’s a genuine expression of empathy.

When said from the heart, "That makes sense" is an incredible intimacy-builder. It’s no accident it also happens to be what relationship guru Harville Hendrix teaches couples to practice saying with each other when working through tough personal issues. Simply put, it’s validating. In a business context, "that makes sense" is particularly disarming in response to an opposing viewpoint…or something you don’t really want to hear.

Note that saying "that makes sense" is not the same as saying "I agree." With "that makes sense," you’re simply looking at the world from the other person’s vantage point and seeing how things might be pieced together. And unless you’re speaking to someone whose mental faculties are completely compromised, I promise you things do make sense over there, and there’s a way to see it, somehow or another.

"I see you’re concerned about investing a lot of money and time without being sure of the return. That makes sense."

"Sounds like it’s imperative to have the right executive sponsor in place before we move forward. That makes sense."

"It makes sense to consider all the options before you decide which firm you want to hire."

"Tell Me More"

"Tell me more" is a simple and elegant way to invite someone to share information with you. Distinct from a targeted, intellectually-impressive question, "tell me more" implies an absence of time pressure, agenda (as in motives), and a desire to show off. Its subtext: "The agenda is yours, my time is yours, and my focus is devoted to you, not me." Its beauty is in its simplicity and its other-orientation.

"I Don’t Know"

I’ve been in and around the consulting industry for close to 20 years and know very few consultants who are comfortable not knowing an answer to a question (myself included). On the contrary, we’ve convinced ourselves that clients not only want answers, they want the right answers…right away.  (See The Point of Listening is Not What you Hear but the Listening Itself.) Which leads to a lot of well-intended bad behavior, like ever-so-slightly exaggerating what we do know in order to fill in the gaps.

The alternative is having the courage to say "I don’t know" when you don’t know–being forthright in a way that appropriately conveys your overall confidence (so high, in fact, that you’re OK to admit what might be perceived as a weakness) and your commitment to find the most accurate answer. As counter-intuitive as it may be, "I don’t know" actually builds credibility (and therefore your trustworthiness) because it shows you are honest. ( For more about how the things we want to say the least usually build the most trust, read Trust and Golf: How Neither Makes Sense).

The Proof

Of course, we could add "I love you" to the list of word triplets, but then things start to get a little too squishy. (Or do they?)

I’ll end with this instead: intimacy, other-orientation, and credibility increase trustworthiness. "That makes sense," "Tell me more" and "I don’t know" improve your score on each. Therefore, three little words really can make you more trustworthy.

Quod erat demonstrandum.

P.S. By the way, with the new year upon us and so many of the usual resolutions already long-forgotten, it’s worth checking out Chris Brogan’s recent blog post, My 3 Words for 2010. Trusted Advisor Associates’ three words for the year (in draft) are Community, Rich-Soil, and Starpower. My personal ones are Leaps, Delicious, and Gravitas. And you?

 

 

 

Grounded Corporate Culture vs. Up In The Air Management

Over the holiday weekend we gorged on movies; Sherlock Holmes, Broken Embraces, a few others. One that got decidedly mixed reviews was Up In the Air. Personally, I liked it. The New Yorker explains it very well.

But you don’t have to agree with me for us to use the metaphor. George Clooney plays a globe-trotting firer-for-hire; an outsider hired by management to terminate people at arm’s length. (Never mind such jobs basically don’t exist, this is Hollywood). 

On a dozen levels, the movie deals with the issue of intimacy in business. Firing people by proxy; quitting a job by texting; romance in the friendly skies—or is it romance? And throughout it all, can we tell the difference?

Intimacy in Business

Also over the weekend, I had a cuppa with a client, a partner at a large global professional services firm. Call him Ishmael.

We talked about his business and mine, mine consisting in part of selling to his. Like many large firms, his has cut back virtually 100% on internal travel. 

Ishmael: A global business of collegial professionals can exist for a year without mixing with your partners. Maybe even a little longer. But at some point it begins to exact a toll. We’ve been webinared to death.   Worse, we only have two-dimensional, sensory-deprived images of each other. 

There’s only so much you can do to maintain a connection without the physical, breathing presence of each other. Avatars and holograms and con-calls don’t do it. Cultures don’t live by cloud-computing alone. To make a firm, you’ve got to drink beer together, play golf together, smell each other, laugh and cry in the same room at the same time. 

Is that a real poncho, or is that a Sears poncho? (Frank Zappa)

Up in the Air Management

What I liked about the movie was that the Clooney character actually does have the ability to be real: he shows it in a scene where he cuts through the cynical hatred of a terminated employee (the talented J.K. Simmons) to jarringly put him back in touch with his youthful dreams. And yet Clooney’s character is so practiced in the Plastic Ways that he ultimately can’t recognize when he’s lost touch with that ability.

The best movies are metaphors for life. There’s fodder enough here to rail against the twittering, ADD-ridden, thumb-dancing toys that threaten to reduce our attention to a tiny screen. But that’s not all.

Those new technologies are also metaphors in addition to being virtual reality centers. They are metaphors for other forms of anti-intimacy management tools–blind auctions; outsourcing; management by process; modular design; over-use of legal agreements; online employment search.

There’s nothing wrong per se with any of these tools. But taken uncritically, and at too great a strength, you end up with Clooney in the skies, aiming at what you think is real, but which ends up being just a pale reflection.  

…like a Sale sign in the window; you go in, and find it is only the sign that is for sale. (Soren Kierkegaard)